They were losing the battle with the fire. Their efforts were just enough to keep it from raging out of control, but not enough to put it out. It was growing, and they were running out of extinguishers. Bo had called a few of them around and were discussing ideas, what options they might have. Already the volunteers were coughing from smoke, growing dizzy as the air heated and the oxygen burned.
It seemed a ridiculous thought, but all Ella wished for right now was to turn off that damn alarm so she could die in peace. It was no use, though. The alarm would continue unless they cut power from the emergency battery it was hard-wired into, and they couldn’t do that, that would cut the life support as well.
“Wait-” Could it be that simple? “Bo? Bo!” Ella got to her feet and ran over, tugging his shirt eagerly. “The life support! If we cut the back-up power-” she began.
“The fire might burn itself out before the rest of the building,” he finished as he caught her meaning. “But do we all suffocate in the attempt?”
He didn’t wait for an answer as he wasn’t really asking her. He hollered to get everyone back and into the stairwell, and not leave a single soul behind. It was a fool’s hope, but it was hope. As the dozen volunteers edged back into the hallway and toward the stairs, there was a great cracking sound from the apartment, a cry following close after, as part of an interior wall collapsed.
A few men rushed back inside, and Ella held back a cry of her own as they emerged again, carrying Tanner between them. Once everyone was into the stairwell, Bo told them to get up to the second floor at least, there was no telling exactly how this was going to play out. The fire might be smothered quickly or it might suck all the oxygen out of the lower part of the building before it was out.
As they filed through the doorway and out of the hall, a young man, barely eighteen, came up to Bo. “Sir? I’ve worked maintenance in these kinds of buildings before, I know where the battery overrides are-”
“Go,” Bo said, not even waiting for him to finish.
Ella balked at the idea of sending a kid to what was, in all likelihood, his death. By the look on Bo’s face, he didn’t like it much himself, but it was the death of all of them if it didn’t work. The kid ran off, and Ella wanted to protest but Bo waved her over and got a roll of gauze out of the bag of supplies she was still clutching. Then, with her help, they shut it between the doors in an attempt to seal what they could of the small gap.
“Will it be enough?” Carol asked, looking uncertain.
“It’ll have to be,” Bo said. “Come on.”
They followed the hot and tired crew as they stumbled up the stairs as fast as they could. The two men carrying Tanner were at the back, and Ella said to take him back to her apartment, and anyone else who needed medical attention, what little they could offer. They laid Tanner on the floor and Ella held a flashlight up for Carol as she looked him over.
He had a gash on his head which was bleeding, and his hair and left arm were badly burned. There were a few spots where his shirt had tried to catch fire but the skin beneath was unharmed, so Carol focused on his head as the major concern. What Ella noticed most was how the powder from the extinguisher covered his body with a white film and made him look unnatural, like a ghost.
Carol worked quickly to staunch the bleeding with what they had, and it wasn’t long before she had him wrapped up. She gave Ella a reassuring smile and said he should be fine, then dabbed some of the burn gel on his arm. Ella held his hand, giving over the flashlight to one of the others as Carol moved on to treat a few more burns and injuries.
When the sound of the alarm faltered and stopped, the silence left in its wake made everyone hold their breath for a moment. The subtle movement of air from the ventilation system stopped. Now it was a waiting game; the fire or the people, who would run out of air first?